By: Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.


In 1944 Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore set off a controversy in the study of social inequality by arguing that there are differences across occupations in terms of prestige and salary on the basis of scarcity. That is, positions that can be easily filled do not need to be well rewarded. It is those positions that require considerable training, they argued, that must have greater rewards if people are to be motivated to assume the burden and costs of acquiring the skills associated with them. The implication was that those on the higher end of the occupational ladder were functionally more important for society.
The controversy revolved around two key issues: 1) the implicit acceptance of the existing aspects of social inequality as fair, and 2) the utility of functional analysis when it bypasses explanation. The first allows us to critically examine the structures of inequality in society and whether or not they are fair and justified. The second has resulted in the decline from prominence of functionalist theory in the social sphere. While Davis and Moore assumed the universality of inequality in society, with individuals assuming positions through a process of competition, criticism forced Davis to revise the theory to take into account the fact that many individuals obtain positions through status ascription. That is, individuals can and are assigned positions on the basis of social status rather than on merit. In America for example, race is a marker used for ascribing statuses associated with occupations, giving rise to the racial division of labor.
The way that the construct of race is used is as follows. Despite race being a social construct, people believe that biological races exist in a hierarchy based on differences in intelligence, control over emotions, and morality, or some combination thereof. Phenotypical features such as skin color, hair, and other features become the markers used to classify people into inferior and superior races. Sometimes cultural features are used as markers of race as well. Those classifications give rise to a social order with a racial division of labor in which the so-called inferior races are relegated to occupations on the lower end of the occupational ladder, with the others reserved for members of the so-called superior race.
In racial societies, members of the groups socially defined as inferior perform the so-called “dirty work” in the economy in jobs with low prestige and low wages and benefits. Some societies are more closed and others more open when it comes to social mobility. Neither are societies completely closed nor are they completely open in terms of social mobility. While the United States has been viewed as a society that is more open than others, say India, it remains a society rooted in racism, with features that limit upward social mobility on the basis of race. In the United States, the racial hierarchy classifies White persons as members of the superior population and all others as members of inferior populations.
Over time, racism became a feature of the social order in which members of one group define those of another as inferior and limit their life chances through the day-to-day dynamics of societal institutions. Racial beliefs legitimize the social inequalities that characterize the social order. Once institutionalized, racial beliefs among the populations may recede in prominence but the differences in life chances remain. That does not mean that racial beliefs among the members of the dominant group no longer exist, they remain in the collective beliefs and sentiments of the dominant group to be mobilized when they feel threatened by subordinate groups.
The racial division of labor is constituted by the intersection of race and economic class and frames the allocation of occupational opportunities among the various ethno-racial groups. Wealth allows the circumvention of the structure of occupational opportunities in the economy even as it does not always transcend the inferior racial status in everyday life. Well-to-do minorities can still be racially discriminated against in the public sphere. And, their success may actually evoke resentment on the part of members of the dominant group that someone from an inferior group has risen above their own economic status. There are many circumstances in which that resentment becomes widespread and collective actions are taken against members of the subordinate groups.
As Latina/os entered American society following the American Mexican War, they became integrated into its racial order, their positions partly influenced by the nature of entry and the resources they brought with them. Today, poor immigrants and refugees from Mexico and Central America are at the bottom of the social and occupational orders performing manual labor jobs in the economy. The main sectors are agriculture, construction, service occupations (such as, building and ground cleaning and maintenance, food preparation and serving, etc.), and production. It is not an accident or a simple matter of competition and merit, for instance, that White Americans comprise nearly 90% of Chief Executives and Latina/os only 6.1%.
Today, Latina/os comprise the second largest ethnic population in the country, second only to non-Hispanic White Americans. They are also the target of White supremacists who have organized racist militias and ethno-nationalist groups in many states. These groups have increased in number since the election of Donald Trump as President of the U.S. in 2016. Their members promote the superiority of the White race and feel threatened by the demographic shift that is currently under way. Today, their targets are immigrants and refugees. They are motivated by the view that White American culture and identity are under threat of replacement by non-white populations. One factor that is not often discussed that has contributed to the frustration and resentment felt by many White Americans is the downward mobility and economic instability brought about by the neoliberal policies of the last half century.
Rather than recognizing that anti-government and anti-labor policies have led to economic instability, many White Americans blame immigrants and ethno-racial minorities for their economic hardships. A current belief is that immigrants are coming to take or steal jobs from “Americans,” thereby exacerbating their economic troubles. While effective in deflecting attention from neoliberal policies and in scapegoating immigrants, these views do not jibe with reality. Namely, immigrants contribute to economic growth and often “perform unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.
Take the role of farmworkers in the nation’s agricultural fields and meatpacking plants. These workers perform difficult work for low wages and few benefits that few others seek. Moreover, in the current pandemic, the jobs they perform have been declared essential by the President of the U.S., while absolving employers of liability if their workers contract the virus. Essential jobs must be performed to maintain critical infrastructure operations in society. “Essential workers” are in energy, healthcare, critical retail, critical trades, transportation, water and wastewater, agriculture and food production, and other industries. In 2019, 55.2 million workers were in occupations considered essential. The largest number of them were in healthcare (16.7 million) and agriculture (11.4 million). Lowest in prestige in the healthcare industry are aides, housekeeping workers, and janitors. Lowest in agriculture are the approximately 2 million migrant and seasonal farm workers comprised mainly of immigrants, the majority of whom are Latina/os. Frontline meatpacking workers number approximately 200,000 and are comprised mainly of non-White workers.
These workers were forced to put their lives on the line for the rest of the nation during the pandemic and often did so without adequate personal protective equipment. Meatpacking workers made national news when the plants they worked at became COVID-19 hot spots. As the peak produce season began farmworkers also were getting sick with the novel coronavirus. Despite being repeatedly threatened by President Trump, these workers maintained the food supply to the nation’s households, one of the most critical of operations in the nation’s infrastructure. While they may not have the education of other workers in more prestigious occupations, it is clear that their role in the economy is more important than that of many other workers, and that Davis and Moore were wrong in implying that the more educated in the occupational structure serve more critical roles in the economy. Racism and the racial division of labor are major factors in shaping the inequalities found in our occupational structure.